A Master Class on the Secret of “Tao” and the Ancient Taoist Code
What is the holy and sacred Tao? Hell if I know, and I’m a famous Taoist teacher. How’s that for a conundrum?
The word Tao has been endlessly embedded into pop culture by meme-meisters who are clueless as to what the word Tao actually means. They name their restaurants, Bubble Tea shops, Tao this and Tao that. Newbie spiritual seekers use the word to define the plastic, spiritually-materialistic, Chinese looking trinkets they put on their meditation alters.
I want to help if I can. In this story, I will amateurishly present my simple understanding of the idea of “Tao”. I can’t offer you a definition for what the word means or even represents, because there is none. Still, we have to start somewhere, so let me give it a shot.
Let’s begin our story the way Joseph Campbell or Ludwig Wittgenstein might, with definitions! The word “Tao” is actually the expression of the Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese characters (symbols) that in combination mean ‘head’ and ‘to go’. Simply this means “the way”, “the path”, or “the journey”. So many different, imprecise definitions coming out of two little simple characters.
Clearly, if we are serious about the subject at hand, we will need a definition much larger than simply “the way”.
So what does the word “Tao” really mean?
I’m not really sure, and neither is anyone else, though people have claimed to understand the concept for over two thousand years.
Tao might mean ‘the way that leads to a set goal’, ‘the direction’, or ‘the prescribed way’. It might also mean ‘to talk’ and ‘to lead’. These are all qualities that the Tao offers us though it does not specifically define what this Tao thing is. If you read the most important Taoist texts, the Tao te Ching, and Chuang Tzu, it seems clear that Tao cannot be modified, improved, damaged, destroyed, altered, nor changed. It might seem a bit confusing, yet these texts claim Tao is in all things and is the source of all things. Not only that, but it is available to all individuals in any country, and of any class, race, gender, religion, or position in life, and without cost.
Huh! Well, if words cannot describe it, and yet it exists, what is it? One way to understand Tao is through the use of your imagination and metaphor.
So imagine if we were to create an image of a womb. Now imagine this womb as a vehicle for the birth of the divine, or some unknowable sacred thing into the quantum and as well as the visual universe(s). It is a womb full of what “is” but also of what seems “to not be”. It appears empty and devoid of any distinctions. Everything is in it and emerges from it, whether it be spiritual, mental, or physical. It is the source of all creation, existence, and self-knowledge. All that exists in any way shape or form comes from and is nurtured by Tao. I describe it as Tao rather than Tao, because it isn’t actually a thing, in the way we are likely to describe things.
If this womb example got you more confused than you were before, than just imagine an empty teacup, that happens to be the source of everything that existed, exists, and will exist, in the illusion of all space and time
If this description of Tao has you a little intrigued the nature of Tao is explored in greater detail in entry #21 in the Tao te Ching.
During my days as a Shaman’s apprentice, my teachers would often describe the experience of Tao as “the audible life stream”, which underlies, permeates, and transcends the physical universe. As unseen as this force is so is it active in governing all that exists in the world. This force, “Tao” is similar in description to the divine or creative force that is discussed by the great founders of the world’s major religions. The greatest action for any human being is to directly experience this force and live in harmony with and in it. Many of the great Taoist writings speak of a mystic union with a “Sacredness” that cannot be spoken of but can be experienced within.
Think of it in this way; if from nothing you can progress to something and eventually reach there, it would be easier still if you were to start from something. The individual who has mastered an understanding of Tao knows that in the beginning there is nothing, just the nameless, indescribable, “One.” Since there is no “something” in the beginning, a spiritual seeker should not waste time looking for it.
Interestingly, possibly even amusingly, from an existential or absurdist perspective, individuals of profound wisdom do not concern themselves with Tao. They embody it and only concern themselves with those things that celebrate life and living. They are concerned with the soaring of the human spirit; the inquiry into self and the surrender of that self to wisdom, deeply profound knowledge, love, and the celebration and joy of being human. I like to call this Mystic Taoism. It is a type of Essential Taoism that transcends the rites, rituals, ceremonies, clergy, temples, and other forms of idolatry for material things that often represent formal religion.
People, places, and things are often complex and are seldom defined in absolutes. There is no black or white here. Tao rests in the paradox, contradictions, and ambiguity found in much of life. It rests in the subtle shades of gray within the gray areas that can make life most interesting, fulfilling, and meaningful. For the 21st century seeker “Truth”, Taoist teachings can be interpreted in innumerable ways; as a game of discovery, as a spiritual path, as a guide to finding contentment, or as a dogmatic, repressive formal religion.
For the individual for whom Tao is a wondrous path of discovery, there are many different perspectives on Tao which one can embrace. At times the journey will seem profound and at other times obvious, almost, one might say, superficial. It can reduce complex issues to simplified formulas, and yet when it does so, it is often done masterfully and with great elegance. Tao can open the sincere spiritual seeker to the profound complexity that lies between the lines of Lao Tzu’s words; words that might seem simplistic to the untrained brain.
It is our desire for Tao alone that is strong enough to draw our attention away from the five senses and free us from our obsessions and compulsions. Tao resides in a realm that is divine and transcendent; a realm beyond space, time, causation, and relativity. It rests in a place where transcendent love lives. It draws us into its bosom and delivers us into a state of inseparable and total union with sacred wisdom. If a word could be used to describe Tao, it is love. Tao is an ocean of love, and more. “Te” is simply a drop off mist thrown off the waves of that ocean. As for us? We are less than the atoms of the drops of at mist. And yet, at the same time, through an understanding of Tao, we can become that “Awakened” empty space?
As they contemplated the remarkable rhythms of the universe reflected through nature, the wise and extraordinary teachers (Sages) understood why humans suffer and struggle. They understood that it was our desires, which put everything into artificial categories, creating unnecessary chaos and struggle in the otherwise perfect order of things.
What is the Secret of “Tao” and the Ancient Taoist Code? Love!
If we just allowed ourselves to know the absolute love that is Tao and embraced it, our struggles would dissolve into nothingness.
This Commentary is extracted from the “Course on Essential Taoism A-Z and Beyond” — A program based on the merging of 20 different English Translations of the Tao te Ching (from Mandarin to English). This was a project I began in 1972 and completed in 2020
About the author: I am a game theorist and self-improvement coach offering advice for innovators of all levels who are dealing with obstacles and constraints. I am also a senior teacher in the Mystic Tao Community
Learn More about Applied Game Theory and Taoist Thought
Most of my Medium stories related to Taoism, Zen, self-improvement, life lessons, mental health, and Eastern Philosophy are rooted in the Western concept of Applied Game Theory. This idea explores how and why people make certain choices. Researchers into game theory have won over twenty Noble Prizes. The movie “A Beautiful Mind” is about the life of John Nash, one of the pioneers in game theory. Of course, the most sophisticated competitive and strategic game in existence is the Chinese game of Go. Learn more about the powerful tool, game theory, for self-improvement. I explain it in the Medium.com article below.
The article was written so that a 12-year-old can easily understand and apply the simple 3 step system. The article also includes a short video interview of me with Jim Selman a pioneer and thought leader in leadership, business success, and innovation.
The Best Introduction to Game Theory, Simple and Easy to Understand — Written for a 12-Year-Old
Q. Lewis, what is the meaning of game theory?
If you want to read more of my stories on Tao and innovation I recommend the following story next: